Sports Law Blog
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Thursday, November 20, 2008
MLB, Japanese Baseball, and US Antitrust Law
Today’s NY Times has an interesting article about Junichi Tazawa, the 22-year old Japanese pitching star. Tazawa first drew attention for his 97-mph hour fastball, but has now become the center of controversy because he is the first notable amateur Japanese baseball player to entertain offers from Major League Baseball teams before playing for or even signing with a Japanese team. Japanese baseball officials are worried about future Japanese stars following suit and therefore draining the talent pool from Japanese professional baseball, possibly threatening the viability of Nippon Professional Baseball (MLB’s Japanese counterpart).
According to the article, “[m]any Japanese baseball officials are outraged that United States teams are courting Tazawa.” Why the outrage? Because the Japanese officials “insist it is long-established practice for amateurs like him to be strictly off limits to (U.S.) major league clubs.” According to a press release from Nippon Professional Baseball: “This was more than just a gentlemen’s agreement, but rather an implicit understanding that the major leagues would do no such thing…. That a handful of clubs from the majors is trying to break this gentlemen’s agreement is truly regrettable.”
The article also notes that Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman acknowledged the existence of some form of agreement:
“I’m old school — there has been an understanding,” said Cashman, whose team has a formal cooperative relationship with the Yomiuri Giants, a team particularly upset with the Tazawa affair. “There’s been a reason that Japanese amateurs haven’t been signed in the past, so we consider him hands off.”
As the article also points out,
An unnamed Major League Baseball official apparently “angrily rebutted” the notion that any agreement existed that prevented MLB teams from signing amateur Japanese players (and vice versa). Why the “angry” rebuttal? Well, if such an agreement did exist, it would likely be a violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act, as it is a classic group boycott (and a horizontal market division). The best way for MLB to avoid Section 1 liability in this case may simply be to argue that there is no agreement between MLB and Japanese baseball. Without an agreement, there can be no violation of Section 1. That argument obviously becomes more difficult to make, however, when the general manager of one of MLB’s marquee franchises publicly admits that an agreement does in fact exist.
What about the baseball antitrust exemption? Well, there is an argument (albeit a weak one) that, after the Curt Flood Act of 1998, the baseball antitrust exemption no longer exists. Assuming it does exist, however, what is the impact of the exemption and the Curt Flood Act on a possible suit brought against MLB in this context?
Well, the Act states, in relevant part:
Does the agreement (assuming, for the sake of argument, that one exists) between MLB and Japanese baseball implicate Section 27(a), 27(b)(1), or both? I don’t think it matters. I think a court would reject application of the baseball exemption simply because MLB has entered into an agreement with a non-MLB party. Courts—before and after the Curt Flood Act—have only applied the baseball antitrust exemption when the agreement at issue exclusively involved MLB-related entities. Thus, regardless of one’s view of the scope of the Curt Flood Act, I think any agreement between MLB and Japanese baseball would be subject to scrutiny under Section 1, so Brian Cashman may want to choose his words more carefully in the future…